Unwrapping the History of Chicago’s Italian Beef

Chicago is renowned for its deep-rooted culinary traditions, but among a metropolitan filled with gastronomic treasures, one sandwich stands out as a true icon—the Italian Beef. This mouth-watering creation is not only a staple for visitors and locals, but it’s woven itself into the cultural fabric of Chicago and is spreading through pop culture nationwide. You understand the hype if you’ve tried one of Chicago’s Italian Beef sandwiches. If you haven’t, it’s time to return to the Windy City. In the meantime, let’s unwrap the curious history of one of Chicago’s most famous foods.

The Origins of Italian Beef

Although the exact history is unknown, many believe the Italian Beef sandwich originated from Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. Many were employed in Chicago’s old Union Stock Yards and factories at the time. Coming from Italy, they were also skilled chefs looking for a way to create a hearty, affordable meal. Oftentimes, they’d bring home the less desirable cuts of beef and start experimenting with some cooking methods. The best way to do this? Slow-roasting and simmering it in a broth bustling with Italian herbs and spices.

The true birth of the Italian Beef sandwich is credited to Pasquale Scala, who opened the first Italian beef stand in Chicago in 1925. Inspired by the traditional Italian “roast beef on crusty bread” concept, Scala adapted the recipe to cater to the taste buds of the working-class Chicagoans. Little did he know that he was launching a culinary phenomenon.

In 1938, Al’s Beef was founded by Al Ferreri, his sister Frances Pacelli, and her husband Chris (Baba) Pacelli. Al’s Beef remains one of the most popular Italian Beef shops in Chicago today.

In 1963, Carl Bonavolanto Jr. Jr. and Tony Ozzauto co-founded Mr. Beef on Orleans Street. In 1979, Mr. Beef was purchased by Joe Zucchero and grew to what it is today. You may have heard of it or even seen the inside, as about 90% of the popular Hulu show “The Bear” pilot was filmed there. Thanks to the show, the restaurant more than doubled its business. Sadly, the owner, Joe Zucchero, passed away in March 2023. However, the restaurant remains open and continues to dish out one of Chicago’s best Italian Beef sandwiches.

The Art of Roasting

So, what’s so great about the Italian Beef? At the heart of the allure lies the meticulously slow-roasted beef. It’s typically seasoned with a secret blend of Italian spices, ensuring a burst of flavor in every bite. The meat is slow-roasted to perfection, rendering it tender and juicy – a crucial element that sets Chicago’s Italian Beef apart.

Thinly sliced and piled generously onto a fresh Italian roll, the beef is the star of the sandwich. In fact, “Bonavolanto Jr. calls making Italian Beef an art, something that can’t easily be imitated.”

The (Potentially Controversial) Dipping Ritual

What truly distinguishes Chicago-style Italian Beef is the iconic “dipped” preparation. A hallmark of authenticity, the sandwich is often served with the option to be dipped in savory jus—the flavorful cooking juices from the roasted beef. This allows the bread to soak up the secret herbs and spices used to perfect the Italian Beef.

However, the debate over how much to dip is a longstanding one. Some aficionados prefer a light dip for a hint of flavor, while others go all-in for a fully saturated experience. The dipping ritual tends to be a highly personal preference, which has sparked friendly debates among Chicagoans over the years. For even more flavor, true Italian Beef enthusiasts will top the sandwich off with sweet peppers or hot giardiniera.

Iconic Italian Beef Stands

Regardless of which neighborhood in Chicago you’re in, you’re bound to come across one of the many famous Italian Beef shops or stands. There are several different places that have become legendary in Chicago, each contributing its unique twist to the classic recipe.

Al’s Beef, founded in 1938, is considered one of the pioneers and remains a beloved institution. This delicious Italian Beef can be found near Corporate Suites Network’s Catalyst furnished apartments and Presidential Towers in the West Loop area.

Mr. Beef is another one of the original Italian Beef restaurants that has gained a cult following over the years. Their secret recipe is not to be missed and is conveniently located nearby Hubbard Place apartments.

Buona Beef was opened by members of the Bonavolanto family, the same family that co-founded Mr. Beef. It’s a chain restaurant that offers several menu items, including the infamous Italian Beef. Buona Beef has locations all throughout Chicagoland, so it’s easy to find wherever you are.

Johnnie’s Italian Beef, another iconic establishment, has been feeding Chicagoans since 1961, earning a spot in the hearts of locals and visitors alike. Located in Elmwood Park, Johnnie’s is easily accessible to the Western suburbs, especially for CSN residents at The Marke.

Portillo’s is an iconic chain that is now in several states nationwide. They offer nine different variations of the traditional Italian Beef. You can find Portillo’s throughout Chicago, in the surrounding suburbs, and even in several other states nationwide.

Italian Beef in Pop Culture and TV

Beyond its status as a culinary delight, the Italian Beef has found its way into the spotlight of popular culture and television. Numerous TV shows, movies, and documentaries have featured the iconic sandwich, elevating it to a symbol of Chicago’s cultural identity and sparking curiosity in people across the nation.

Although not directly spoken about, a notable appearance of Chicago’s notorious sandwich is in the classic film “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” If you pay attention, you’ll find Ferris and his friends indulging in an Italian Beef sandwich at a local diner.

More recently, Chicago’s Italian Beef was made famous in the show “The Bear.” It created such a buzz around the country that several restaurants have been trying to imitate the recipe, but as Bonavolanto Jr. said, making a true Italian Beef is an art form—not easily imitated.

Other TV series like “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago P.D.” have incorporated scenes featuring characters enjoying Italian Beef sandwiches, but if you really want to understand the cultural hype that surrounds this sandwich, you need to try one yourself.

At the end of the day, the Italian Beef is more than just a meal – it’s a symbol of Chicago’s authenticity and character.

Ready to Try the Italian Beef for Yourself? Make Your Way to the Windy City

Whether you’re planning a business trip to Chicago or looking for a short-term rental to enjoy an extended holiday, there are plenty of things you can do to enjoy the cultural city of Chicago. In addition to the mouth-watering Italian Beef, Chicago has hundreds of different attractions and events at any time of the year.

If you’re still in the process of moving to Chicago or are planning to come for an upcoming work project, corporate housing is a great way to maximize your time in this beautiful city. Corporate Suites Network has several properties spread throughout the different neighborhoods in Chicago and the Chicagoland suburbs. Our prime locations and luxury amenities provide our residents with everything they need to take advantage of their spare time in this city without causing disruptions to their work. Call or email us today to learn more about our property locations or to request more information about Corporate Suites Network’s properties.